Column: Letter from Iraq: A profile in courage

ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ

My 11 months in Iraq have taught me that courage is a relative thing, relative to situation and circumstance. In America, courage comes easy. Just flip through the channels and you’ll likely catch canned human drama and death-defying bravery on one of the myriad “reality” TV shows. Or read the newspapers. A politician taking an unpopular stand on an issue might be called courageous for simply voting his conscious.

What are the repercussions for such bold heroism? A “Survivor” contestant might be voted off the island, while a politician could be voted out of office. For Iraqis, heroic behavior can get you killed.

“There is a saying in Iraq: ‘Iraqis don’t open their mouths, not even at the dentist,'” said Akram Ali Hussein, a translator with my military police company at Abu Ghraib prison. “During Saddam’s rule, and even now, political dissidents face torture, maiming and death.”

Faced with torture, maiming and death, Akram has never kept his mouth shut. He is the most courageous person I have ever known.

In the spring of 1986, just two months from receiving his degree in English literature from Baghdad University, Saddam’s secret police charged Akram with subversion. They accused the 24-year-old of membership in Al Dawa, a prominent Shiite Muslim political party that agitated against Iraq’s war with Iran, a Shiite state.

“I was not a member of Al Dawa,” Akram said, raising an eyebrow and breaking into a coy smile. “But I wished I was. It was an honor to be considered in (Al Dawa’s) company.”

Akram spoke out against Saddam’s American-sponsored war with Iran from the first moment he stepped on Baghdad University’s campus at age 18 to the time of his arrest.

“I told my friends and classmates not to serve in the Iraqi Army,” Akram said. “Saddam had no right to invade a fellow Muslim nation. The West had inflated Saddam, just like a balloon.”

Akram knew well the penalty paid for subversive political speech, but he spoke out anyway.

“It was the right thing to do. I was not afraid,” Akram said.

The secret court sentenced Akram to seven years’ incarceration at Abu Ghraib prison. He believes a Kurdish spy reported his activities to Saddam’s security forces. During the Iraq-Iran War, many Shiite Kurds were forced to choose between spying for Saddam and deportation to Iran.

Guards tortured Akram daily in the first weeks of his stay at Abu Ghraib. The painful regimen consisted of running 12 volts of electricity from Akram’s ear to his testicles. Then, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, guards would hang Akram from a hook on the ceiling for hours. For sustenance, Akram received a few small pieces of bread and sometimes a bowl of lentil soup-just enough to keep him alive.

“The guards had perfected the art of torture under Saddam, so good they rarely left a mark,” Akram said.

With the end of the Iraq-Iran War in 1988, Saddam issued a broad amnesty for political prisoners. Freed after three years of incarceration, Akram struggled to put his life back together. He was barred from re-enrolling in Baghdad University because of his status as a former political prisoner. So Akram followed in his father’s footsteps and opened a shop, selling shoes and accessories.

“I lost all of my friends,” Akram said. “For their safety, it was best not to associate with me.”

But Akram refused to disassociate himself with one special woman who had caught his eye.

“I noticed her from a distance,” said Akram, unable to hold back a grin. “I come from a traditional family, so I asked my family to ask her family if I could marry her. Her family said no.”

Rejection only strengthened Akram’s desire to have Bushra Assad Jassim’s hand in marriage.

“I knew her uncle, and he vouched for me,” Akram said. “He said, ‘Akram is a good man.'”

Although worried about the dangers involved in allowing their daughter to marry a former political prisoner, Bushra’s family finally relented. Akram and Bushra wed in January 1990.

Today, Akram forbids his two oldest children, 13 and 11, from speaking about their father’s job with the U.S. Army. His youngest children, ages 5, 4 and 3, do not know what their father does for a living.

“It is for their safety,” Akram says. “Kidnapping is a big problem in Baghdad and those who work with the Americans are always a target.”

In April, after Coalition Forces toppled Saddam’s regime, Akram drove to the Iraqi-Jordanian border to volunteer his services to the American forces as a translator. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment hired him on the spot. Akram worked with the 3rd ACR for a few months, but when his pay dropped off he headed back to Baghdad.

“The soldiers offered to take up a collection, to pay me themselves,” said Akram. “I thanked them but do not need charity. I am not a beggar.”

In my experience at Abu Ghraib, I’ve found that a good translator can mean the difference between common understanding on one hand and a riot on the other. I’ve worked with dozens of Iraqi translators, and Akram is the best. Akram can get into the mind of a prisoner because, well, he was one. He knows what the Iraqi guards do when the American MP supervisors aren’t watching. He can spot a bogus story from a mile away and he displays zero tolerance for dishonesty among prisoners and guards. Perhaps the only thing more perceptible than Akram’s toughness is his unflagging integrity.

Although overjoyed that the U.S. removed Saddam from power, Akram criticized the Coalition Authority for the current lack of security in Iraq.

“Iraqis feared Saddam, so there was order,” Akram said. “No one fears the Americans.”

But he says the problem goes deeper.

“After 35 years of Saddam, common Iraqis do not feel ownership of Iraq,” Akram noted. “People are not proud to be Iraqi.”

At age 42, Akram is back at Baghdad University finishing his bachelor’s degree. On any given day, I might catch him pouring over “The Great Gatsby” or “Waiting for Godot,” or perusing his battered, coverless Arabic-to-English dictionary.

Akram will tell you that the United States has burned the Iraqi people three times – first by supporting Saddam’s ruinous war with Iran, then by urging a Shiite uprising after the first Gulf War but washing its hands of the slaughter that followed, and lastly by letting Iraq fall into chaos following the most recent Iraq War. But Akram is an optimist. He is the very best Iraq has to offer, and his dream is the American Dream.

“I want to live with my family in America,” says Akram. “I want to tell the Americans that Arabs do not hate them. I think I could be very beneficial to the Americans.”

As far as I’m concerned, nobody embodies the American ideals of courage, hard work and integrity more than Akram. America would be lucky to have him, and I am lucky to call him a friend.

-The writer, a second-year law student, is a former Hatchet editor in chief and an MP in the U.S. Army reserves.

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